Ten years ago, as the US invasion of Iraq began, and I was the editor of Editor & Publisher, I turned to veteran war reporter (then still at The New York Times) Chris Hedges for insight on what was going on—and what was likely coming. On most questions, his was a minority voice. Also, as it turned out, quite prescient.
He told our reporter Barbara Bedway that the US military’s use of embedded reporters in Iraq had made the war easier to see and harder to understand. Yes, “print is doing a better job than TV,” he observed. “The broadcast media display all these retired generals and charts and graphs, it looks like a giant game of Risk. I find it nauseating.” But even the print embeds had little choice but to “look at Iraq totally through the eyes of the US military,” he pointed out. “That’s a very distorted and self-serving view.”
To Hedges this instantaneous “slice of war” reporting was bereft of context. After a few days passed and the US made its relenteless way toward Baghdad, he told Bedway that reporters have a difficult time interviewing Iraqi civilians, and many don’t even try, he says: “We don’t know what the Iraqis think.” The reporters are “talking about a country and culture they know nothing about…. My suspicion is that the Iraqis view it as an invasion and occupation, not a liberation. This resistance we are seeing may in fact just be the beginning of organized resistance, not the death throes of Saddam’s fedayeen.
“I’ve witnessed how insurgencies build in other conflicts—good guerilla leaders [could appear] who are unknown to us now. They know the landscape. It reminds me of what happened to the Israelis after taking over Gaza, moving among hostile populations.”
Then he expressed what might turn out to be the single most prescient line on the war: “It’s 1967, and we’ve just become Israel.”
The real “shock and awe” may be that we’ve been lulled into a belief that we can wage war cost-free, according to Hedges: “We lose track of what war is and what it can do to a society.”
A few days later, US forces surrounded Baghdad Airport. But even as Saddam fled, the conflict was hardly over. Resistance to the US occupation continued to grow but most Americans, and members of the press, still took it lightly—more as an annoyance than anything to worry about longterm. But Hedges had a different view.
“Postwar coverage has actually been better than the jingoistic war coverage, which was abysmal,” Hedges told Bedway in early May 2003. “There have been some stories—too few, but some—that have given us a sense of the human cost of this war, both to Iraq and to the soldiers who carried it out.”
But Americans remain largely uninformed about what the country faces in its new role as interim administrator of Iraq, he added. “We don’t have a sense of what we have waded into here,” said Hedges. “The deep divisions among the varying factions could be extremely hard to bridge, and the historical and cultural roots are probably beyond the American understanding…. Now that the feel-good, flag-waving part of war is over, the real culprits, the commercial-broadcast media, are going to pack up and leave. What they’ve done is a huge disservice to the nation. They have no sense of responsibility to continue reporting as the story gets more complicated and difficult to report.” (Much more on this in my new book.)
The message put out by the Bush administration and the media portraying Americans only as “liberators” ill-equipped the country to understand why that is not the perception of many Iraqis or much of the rest of the world. Hedges compared the situation to Israel’s taking over Gaza in 1967, and operating among a hostile population: “For occupation troops, everyone becomes the enemy.” As he emphasized in his previous interviews with E&P, the importance of having reporters with an intimate knowledge of the area was crucial.
“In a perfect world, we’d have reporters who speak Arabic and who understand Iraq’s history and culture,” he pointed out. “But they need time, knowledge and space to write, and very few media operations do this kind of analysis. Public TV tries, but they have no budget. It takes a gigantic investment. Profit-driven media organizations realize these stories take work on the part of the readers, and they just don’t see the point.”
The result, he feared, was that “we’ll see Iraq in terms of flare-ups and incidents, without any context or sense of what’s happening or why. That makes it difficult for us to have informed judgments.” Without providing this sort of context, the print and broadcast media cannot perform their essential role in a democracy: to keep the public informed: “It’s sad to see such deterioration in the long tradition that has had a lot of integrity, and been a vital part of our democracy, in the twenty years I’ve been doing it.”
For much more on media malpractice and Iraq, see my new ebook, So Wrong for So Long.